Jack Chelgren ’15 reviews the Annual Organ Romp

Jack Chelgren ’15 reflects on the many contrasting performances from the Annual Organ Romp, held on May 3, 2012. 

Sitting in the pews of Memorial Chapel during the Annual Organ Romp, I came to realize that I don’t listen to enough organ music.  I arrived at this conclusion amid a thunderous torrent of sound gushing from the pipes at the front of the hall, as I discovered that, however doggedly I tried to divorce myself from such associations, the sound of an organ kept evoking for me a clichéd sense of impending doom or peril.  I’m a little ashamed to admit this, because I worry that it reveals in me a kind of musical callowness akin to someone who associates the saxophone with Kenny G or Beethoven with a St. Bernard, and it occurred to me that if I listened to more organ music, I might be disabused of this rather inaccurate association.  I have the sense that I’m not alone in my ignorance, however: the organ, as I understand it, holds a specific and somewhat ironclad place in the public consciousness as the soundtrack to either a church service or a horror film.  And although it was billed as a performance of “new music and non-standard organ repertoire,” the Organ Romp did not necessarily reject such stereotypes about the organ and organ music, or even avoid them.  Instead, the performances seemed to contend that while the organ can and has filled such roles, it is certainly does not need to, and is in any case a vital and diverse player in contemporary music.

As if to establish right away that the concert wasn’t out to topple tradition, the program opened with a few Baroque hard-hitters, beginning with a first-rate rendition of J.S. Bach’s BWV 543: Prelude and Fugue in a minor, performed by Visiting Professor of Music Brian Parks.  It was an even blend of power and reserve, metrical precision and tempo rubato; swirling sixteenth-note passages hurtled furiously toward the bass—some sliding down chromatically, others descending a staircase of disjunct intervals—then leaping back up to begin the descent anew.  The fugue spooled out tightly coiled melodic threads that promptly unraveled into wider and wider intervals, phrases that were then woven together in an intricate contrapuntal braid.  Olivia May ’14 followed with more Bach, BWV 615: In dir ist Freude (“In You Is Joy”), a major key chorale that glowed with a kind of autumnal wisdom, during which I realized that there is something incredibly knowing, almost prophetic, to Bach’s music.  Though people often describe Beethoven as having a kind of inevitable quality to him, there is also something extremely inevitable in Bach.  Bach is lighter, certainly, than Beethoven, but no less profound.  The next piece, Buxtehude’s Prelude, Fugue and Chaconne in C, performed by Vivien Lung ’14, kept to the Baroque style, although, though no fault of Lung’s performance, it failed to reach the same levels of insight and verve of the prior two pieces.  The prelude featured full, heavy chords and tight melodies corkscrewing over low pedal tones, but these aspects were more or less perpetuated in the fugue and the chaconne; rather than acting as independent components of the song, the latter two sections felt like mere extensions of the first.  Again, however, this slight blandness was no doubt the doing of Buxtehude, not Lung.

Then things started to get a little weirder.  Organist Daniel Parcell and cellist Jessie Marino took the stage to perform an excerpt from Vivaldi’s Sonata VI for ‘cello and organ, Parcell in an antiquated tailcoat, Marino looking like the Corpse Bride in a white wig and a gaudy white dress, both completely deadpan as the crowd dissolved into giggles at the sight of them.  Marino, who is a member of the experimental music collective Ensemble Pamplemousse, took the lead voice, asserting the stately, handsome melody over measured downbeats in the organ.  Yet Marino soon began “bleeding” from her mouth as she played, globs and bubbles of fake gore sliding down her chin and staining her dress.  When they finished the piece, she and Parcell took a deep, deep bow, from which Marino, as though dead, did not straighten up until Parcell gave a tug on the back of her dress.  They left the stage, still totally expressionless, to cackles and gleeful applause.

“How are you gonna follow that?” somebody asked Alex Cantrel ’14 as he climbed up from the audience to perform his own composition, On Bliss Hill.  Yet Cantrel didn’t seem to feel any pressure to compete with Parcell and Marino’s antics; he made no attempts to be showy, but merely approached the bench modestly, sat down, and began to play.  His piece sounded a little bit like the overture to a film score, set in a lively compound meter with racing, expectant arpeggios that unfolded over a lower sustained melody.  It was admirable work, though, and lucidly rendered the sense of summery optimism connoted by the title.  Rain Tianyu Xie ’14 subsequently took on the American songbook, performing Vernon Duke and E.Y. Harburg’s What Is There to Say? with a weird filter on the organ that made it sound like a cross between a violin and a bamboo flute.  Xie executed the wistful, sentimental tune keenly and conservatively, and surprised me when she took what sounded like a short improvised solo between choruses of the melody.  Ashlin Aronin ’13 kept up Cantel’s precedent by performing a piece of his own, Elegy, accompanied on bassoon by Jeremy Webber ’13.  An adventuresome work full of close, new-agey harmonies, the song set off with a free meter exposition before settling into an almost sea shanty-esque canter.

Next up was Alan Rodi ’12, who had an almost playful manner onstage, quoting Monty Python—“And now for something completely different!”—as a projector screen lowered from the apse above the organ.  Rodi proceeded to play a beautiful medley of Philip Glass compositions, including the famous Mad Rush, while a clip from the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi (itself scored by Glass) played on the screen.  Jason Sheng Jia ’13 finished off the show with French organist and composer Jehan Alain’s Litanies, a forceful yet light-footed piece of fleeting dissonances and resolutions, traversing musical styles from Baroque to Latin in moving toward its tempestuous climax.

With its playful, almost anarchic connotations, the term “romp” is an apt descriptor for what took place last Thursday night: a concert that both embraced and toyed with the conventions of organ music.  And indeed, the evening had a self-aware, almost Nietzschean character of accepting the very thing one knows to be flawed, at times adopting the well-known dramatic side of the organist (as did Parks, May, and Lung) and at others exploiting and lampooning it (as did Parcell and Marino).  Yet the concert offered still another direction, that of Cantrel, Xie, Aronin, Rodi, and Jia, which neither opposed nor played into the stereotypes surrounding the instrument, and it was these performances that best represented the prevailing tone of the evening: one of inclusivity, a celebration of music.

Jack Chelgren ’15 reviews Jay Hoggard and the Sonic Hieroglyphs Ensemble

Jack Chelgren ’15 attended the Jay Hoggard Quartet concert as part of the 11th annual Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra Weekend, and reflects on his impressions.

Jay Hoggard. Photo courtesy of Santina Aldieri.

Last Saturday night, vibraphonist, composer, and Adjunct Professor of Music Jay Hoggard gave a concert that found Crowell Concert Hall more crowded than any performance I have been to all year.  The room was unambiguously packed, inundated with a healthy blend of students, families, friends, faculty, and a host of others scarcely connected to Wesleyan beyond their interest in the performance.  A student combo of musicians from the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra (which Mr. Hoggard directs) opened the show, playing faithful but lively renditions of standards by Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Jordan, and Sonny Rollins.  There was a short lull, and then Mr. Hoggard’s band took the stage, the man himself with a theatrical strut, sporting an ultramarine suit and a flashy silver vest.  Silence reigned after the initial applause had died down and the band readied its gear; you could hear people fidgeting in their seats as Mr. Hoggard took out his glasses case and slipped his spectacles inside.  Then he glanced up at the audience, as if just realizing we were there.  “Thank you, and goodnight,” he said flatly, and the ensuing chuckles broke the ice.

The group opened with “Swing Em Gates,” a bluesy, up-tempo chart Mr. Hoggard wrote for Lionel Hampton, one of the most significant voices in big band and an early pioneer of jazz vibraphone.  Mr. Hoggard shared the melody with Marty Ehrlich, who played soprano saxophone, and each member of the group improvised.  “Overview” followed, a slower, more expansive piece for which Mr. Ehrlich switched to bass clarinet and delivered one of his best solos of the night, a dextrous, well-crafted display that showcased his rich, vivid tone on the instrument.  The next song, “Joyful Swamp,” brought out harpist Brandee Younger and hand percussionist Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng, kicking off at a breakneck pace with a scurrying marimba and percussion intro before dropping into its slinky, meandering melody, again in the vibes and soprano.  This piece, Mr. Hoggard revealed, he wrote for another jazz great, the monumental drummer Max Roach.  Next came “Soular Power,” an off-kilter, lilting tune that smacked heavily of Dave Holland’s quintet work with vibraphonist Steve Nelson.  This, in turn, was followed by “You’re In My Heart All the Time,” a duet for piano and vibes and the most candidly gorgeous piece of the evening.  The song had a stunningly spontaneous quality, floating in the air like a cloud between the performers, who, though not rhythmically or melodically in sync with one another, played with an astounding understanding and singularity of purpose.  The subsequent medley “The Right Place / Lessons from My Dad” gamboled from a nostalgic, shimmering opening into a desolate solo by bassist Santi Debriano, whose hoarsely melancholic tone recalled the throatier, more progressive side of cellist Erik Friedlander, before giving way to yet another sinuous groove led by the soprano and vibes.  “Convergence of the Niles” closed the first half of the show, a driving McCoy Tyner-esque bop on which Mr. Hoggard let loose with a fiery solo, pulling farther and farther away from the stormy rhythmic and harmonic structures of the song without for a second coming unmoored.

The group was joined by one last guest for the shorter second half of the concert, saxophonist-composer and Professor of Music Anthony Braxton, who kicked off the song “Piety and Redemption” with a soprano sax solo of his own, lashing out flurries of thirty-second notes and blur-like glissandi. Mr. Hoggard then lead the group into the world premiere of his multi-part composition Sonic Hieroglyphs From Wood, Metal, and Skin, the title of which sounds like a cross between Sun Ra and a Fluxus score.  The group played only three of its four movements, beginning with the brightly optimistic “Let Me Make It Clear (We Need Nuclear Peace This Year)” before proceeding into “Live, Breath”—a serenely open piece with brooding and dissonant undertones which featured qigong artists performing onstage alongside the musicians—and then finally to “The Mutilation of Our Mother, Earth, by Perpetual War and DISPOSABLE CONSUMPTION,” a jaggedly collapsing tune à la Michael Formanek.

It was, in all, a highly memorable evening.  There were times when I wished the orchestration had been a little lighter—it could have been the room or where I sat in it, but the ensemble sound often felt rather cluttered and muddy.  I also noticed that communication among the musicians often seemed a little disjointed.  Mr. Hoggard would frequently look up to cue transitions or solos and have to struggle to get the rest of the band’s attention.  Yet the group held together nicely through these rough patches, in large part thanks to the indefatigable rhythm section of Yoron Israel, Mr. Debriano, and Mr. Obeng, giving a show at once through-provokingly erudite and fundamentally accessible.

To learn more about Jay Hoggard, visit his website.  Click here to watch him performing “Joyful Swamp.”

Jack Chelgren ’15 reviews electro-pop duo Tanlines

Creative Campus music blogger Jack Chelgren ’15 reviews the headlining act of Zonker Harris Day 2012, Tanlines.

Photo courtesy of Wesleying.org

“You all have great smiles,” beamed Jesse Cohen, looking out over the crowd assembled in the WestCo courtyard.  Cohen, who is a percussionist and producer, is half of Tanlines, the Brooklyn electro-pop duo formed in 2008 with singer and guitarist Eric Emm.  Tanlines was the featured act of this year’s Zonker Harris Day, Wes students’ unofficial celebration of psychedelia and hippie-dom and one of the more historically controversial fixtures of WesFest weekend.  Fortunately, the band seemed to know what they’d gotten themselves into.  “We got an email warning us about this event,” Cohen smiled.  “Reminds me of how I spent four years of my own life.”  Cohen bantered playfully with the narcotized audience throughout the show, turning adjustments to the sound system into an open “comments section” with the audience, which in turn concluded that what the band really needed was “more denim” (both men wore dark blue jeans, and Emm was sporting a washed-out denim jacket as well).  Emm was the quieter of the pair and made only a few scattered remarks, including one rather awkward shout-out for Ray Bans.  Between songs, Cohen switched on a bizarre recording of wind chimes jangling in a breeze, perhaps to toy with or indulge the blissed-out spectators.

The band put on a good show, a fuzzy, sun-splotched crowd-pleaser replete with straightforward melodies and danceable percussion.  Tanlines peddle almost exclusively in major-key pop grinds, which they spice up sagaciously with mild syncopations, calypso polyrhythms, and samples of conga drums.  Cohen and Emm aren’t out to push the boundaries of songcraft and genre, and though they’re often billed as “experimental pop,” there’s nothing in their repertoire that would pull the average listener up short.  (Cohen has noted that Brothers, a single from their new album, Mixed Emotions, reminds him of a Bruce Springsteen song.)  This is music built on simple, conjunct melodies, well-crafted choruses, and the occasional steel drum synth, but most of all, it’s music built on rhythmic intensity; the secret to Tanlines’ success, hallucinogens aside, is tasteful, persistent repetition.

Particularly in the moment, however, certain aspects of the performance bothered me.  Though Emm’s rough and leathery voice proved just as compelling in person as on record, his pitch wavered throughout the show, particularly in the low end.  The audio mix also left a lot to be desired—from where I was standing, you could barely hear the guitar at all.  Most of all, I was struck by how little of the music seemed actually to have been performed onstage; more than once, I looked up at the stage and realized that, although a percussionist and a half’s worth of rhythm section was pounding away from the speakers, neither Cohen nor Emm was anywhere near a drum or drum pad.  The effect was even more comical later on, when Emm’s vocals were suddenly buttressed by a backup singer not present onstage (even though Cohen had a mic and took care of the backup vocals on other songs).  Especially in the moment, this irked me; I waxed indignant on behalf of musicians who actually subject themselves to the contingency of performing all of their music on the spot and without computerized assistance.  My mind drew parallels with the 2004 scandal when Ashley Simpson was caught lip-synching on Saturday Night Live.  I realize in retrospect, though, that the difference between Ashley Simpson and Tanlines (or rather, one among many) is that Tanlines made no attempt to conceal their tactics.  “We play a lot of stuff live, and a lot of time you can’t really tell which is real and which is fake,” Cohen told NPR.  “That’s sort of a thing that we like to play with” (see Tanlines: Grown-Up Problems, With A Beat, NPR Music).

I acknowledge that, in assailing Tanlines’ musicianship based on their generous use of samples, I’m representing a relatively conservative camp in the music world.  Maybe I’m wrong when I assert above that Tanlines aren’t out to challenge listeners and their preconceived notions about music; maybe they are innovating in precisely a way that I’m not prepared for: by shaking up the expectation that good musical performance is all about creation in the moment.

In the end, my criticisms may be too harsh.  As I watched the show and mulled over my reactions to it, I was reminded of an article I read a few months ago in The New Yorker, in which Sasha Frere-Jones mounts a lukewarm defense of Lana Del Rey.  “Del Rey is not likely to be good onstage,” Frere-Jones conceded, “but this puts her in the company of about fifty percent of recording artists.”  It’s a valid point.  On a list of qualities that constitute “good music,” perfectly riveting and errorless live performances might be lucky to make the top ten.  And Tanlines, I should grant them, made a far better than average display.  Perhaps they were just having an off day.  Or perhaps it was just me—everyone else I talked to found the show “fantastic,” “really cool,” and “awesome.”  In any case, Tanlines make an excellent listen on record and put on an exceptionally enjoyable live show, and that, when I think about it, is more than enough to ask for.

Be sure to check out footage of Tanlines performing longtime hit Real Life here at Wesleyan, as well as their remix of Au Revoir Simone’s Shadows.

Jack Chelgren ’15 Visits the Espwesso Poetry Reading

Jack Chelgren ’15 attends a poetry reading held at Espwesso, and reflects on their work.

Last Thursday night, thirty or so people piled into Espwesso for a cozy and thoughtful program of student poetry.  Chairs and tables were cleared from the far corner of the room, where a shiny 1950s-style microphone now stood in their place, hooked up to a Fender guitar amp.  The mic teetered precariously on the end of its stand, and every time someone got up to read and adjusted it, the whole room watched in apprehension, waiting to see if it would fall.  (It did.)

The focus of the evening meandered from social and literary commentary to fantastical misadventures and questions of sexuality, love, and identity, a smorgasbord of topics that somehow seemed all in keeping with one another.  Robby Hardesty ’12, first on the roster, read a poem dedicated to his sister, set in a pitch-perfect tone of mock heroism (“To die!  O!  What?” he exclaimed to a tittering audience).  Alek Barkats ’12 rattled off a handful of quirky haikus before launching into a pair of ribald longer poems, one dedicated to his friend on his twenty-second birthday, the other a hilariously sardonic account of a man who has sex with dolphins.  Claire Dougherty ’13 wove a litany of strange, detached images into elegantly prosodic lines reminiscent of Sylvia Plath, while Betsy Sallee ’13, who teamed up with Dougherty to read a poem they cowrote, favored more violent, corporeal language.  Sallee lashed out graphically with lines like, “It is for you that I shave my prickle p*ssy and commit an ambien homicide.”  In another one of her poems, the speaker walks in on a girl she’d gone to elementary school with filming a porn sequence.

Peter Myers ’13 followed up in completely different vein, prefacing one of his poems: “This is a Wikipedia page: ‘List of fatal wolf attacks.’”  There is indeed such a page, and Myers seemed at first to be reading from it verbatim, bringing to mind the work of conceptual poets like Kenneth Goldsmith.  It soon became clear, however, that he was making at least some of it up—in recounting one supposed incident, he paraphrased the opening lines of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”; in another, he cited the victim as “John Fitzgerald Kennedy.”  Emily Brown ’12 read her set of poems twice, first somewhat timidly, then again with more force, delivering pithy, somatic reflections on sex and relationships.  Josh Krugman ’14, who followed her, read in a strange, theatrical voice like that of a bad Shakespeare actor, but the effect was amusing when coupled with the hallucinatory content of his work, lines like, “Just call me porcupine.”  He interrupted himself to inform us that he had just quoted Tennessee Williams, and took a deep, histrionic bow when he finished.  Leia Zidel ’12 read prose poems from her senior thesis, as well as one she had written just the day before, which seemed addressed or otherwise related to James Joyce.  Whereas Sallee was brutal and Brown almost tender with regards to sex, Zidel spoke of it lushly, in verdurous, organic terms: “I have shut my thighs, and still the terrible sap.”  Last in the lineup was Glenn Stowell ’13, whose work exuded a Whitman-esque regard for nature, evoking both a sense of motion and a kind of terrain or topography (which is fitting given that one of his poems was actually titled “Topography”).

What stood out most to me about the reading was just how well each of these poets was able to balance personal expression and earnestness with novelty and experimentation.  The poetic community at Wesleyan can often feel divided between the popular, galvanizing fare of WeSLAM and the rarified, hole-and-corner exploits of an unappreciated avant-garde.  But while such a polarity exists, Thursday night’s reading was a testament to the fact that between these two extremes lies a whole spectrum of work that doesn’t conform to either one.  A diversity of tastes doesn’t necessarily imply a division, but can in fact, as I saw on Thursday, be indicative of just the opposite: a community of individuals united by the common purpose of creating good work.

Emily Brown ’12, Claire Dougherty ’13, Josh Krugman ’13, and Glenn Stowell ’13 are this year’s Wesleyan Student Poets; their selected work has been published in a collection which is available around campus.  For information about upcoming events at Espwesso, like their page on Facebook.

Jack Chelgren ’15 on Max Tfirn’s graduate recital “Pieces From Nature”

Jack Chelgren ’15 on Max Tfirn’s graduate recital “Pieces From Nature”.

Max Tfirn is a tall and spindly grad student with Led Zeppelin hair and a casual, unassuming air.  Out of context, one would more likely take him for the drummer of a heavy metal band than the composer of erudite electronic music.  He was lurking in the audience when I arrived at Crowell Concert Hall last Friday night for his Masters Recital, “Pieces From Nature,” but he made his way to the front of the hall as the house lights dimmed.  Squinting up at us, he asked that we all please turn off our cell phones—not just put them on silent, but turn them off—because the technology he was working with onstage was very sensitive, so much so, in fact, that any cell phone activity could actually cause it to catch fire.  “And we wouldn’t want any pyrotechnics up here,” he concluded.  It was difficult to tell if he was joking—while he seemed completely earnest, the idea of a mixer spontaneously combusting on account of a stray cell phone call seemed more than a little far-fetched.  It wasn’t too much to ask, though, so I joined the small handful of people around me in turning my phone off, completely and utterly off.

Tfirn specializes in music based on L-systems, a kind of formal grammar used for modeling plant growth and fractals.  First proposed by a Hungarian biologist named Aristid Lindenmayer in 1968, L-systems take simple terms called axioms and expand them into long strings of symbols, which can then be graphed as geometric structures. Tfirn then goes a step further, using these shapes and sequences as the structural basis for his compositions.

The six pieces he performed on Friday night were at once varied and similar, amorphous and constant.  They were works of geologic proportions, strata of highly textured sound shifting and evolving like the grinding of tectonic plates.  The opening piece, 32°(F+F)F[+F][-F]F[-F[-F][+F]F], began as the sparse interplay of a handful of tones before sweeping into an enormous hurricane of noise, chaotic and fluctuating, evoking variously an air raid siren, an oncoming train, electric guitar feedback, and the roar of the ocean.  In the listless and agitated Sounds of Auditory Hallucination, Tfirn let loose a high-pitched drone that bored through my skull and swirled around inside it, underpinned by an array of splotches, shrieks, and twangs reminiscent of Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon (1967).  He was joined on vocals by fellow grad student Liz Albee, whose throaty hums and ululations he distilled into a stream of metallic clangs and whistles.  The most conventional display of the evening was A Meeting of Florets, a piece for prepared piano performed by Seung-Hye Kim and Tfirn with a sprightly atonality à la Anton Webern and a spiraling repetitiveness à la Frederic Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge (1969).  Through the insistent reiteration of the seven short motifs that make up the piece, however, Tfirn elicited the same balance of stasis and constant upheaval that pervaded the entire concert, maintaining a prevailingly mercurial air even in this seemingly more traditional composition.  The evening concluded with Florets, a piece for laptop ensemble in which each performer works in real time to match the frequencies mapped visually in an image.  It was perhaps the most intangible of them all, a fog of entangled, slowly rising voices suggesting a vague yet mounting apprehension.

Tfirn’s work is fundamentally interdisciplinary, drawing equally on the linguistic, the visual, and the musical.  A string of symbols becomes the outline of a tree and then the form of a song, each one accentuating intrinsic but otherwise imperceptible qualities in the others.  Ultimately, Tfirn demonstrates the extent to which our experience and understanding of the world is shaped by the lenses through which we perceive it.

For more information about Max Tfirn, or to listen to his music, check out his website or SoundCloud.


Ochoa, Gabriel.  “An Introduction to Lindenmayer Systems.”  Fachbereich Biologie.  School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences, University of Sussex, 2 Dec 1998.  Web.  21 Feb 2012.

Jack Chelgren ’15 reviews .twiddlebuf and the Experimental Music Concert Series

Jack Chelgren ’15 reviews .twiddlebuf and the Experimental Music Concert Series.

One face-stingingly cold night not long ago, I extricated myself, a few minutes behind schedule, from the piles of homework blanketing my bed and hurried across campus to Russell House.  I arrived slightly late, and as I sped through the main gate and up the walkway was unnerved to see that the parking lot was practically empty.  I began to worry I’d come to the wrong place.

Fortunately, I hadn’t—climbing the steps to the front door, I spotted a poster taped hastily to one of the panels: “.twiddlebuf / music for violin and electronics.”  My tardiness was similarly not an issue; I slipped inside several minutes after the show was supposed to start to find the audience standing around in the reception area, munching on cheddar and apple slices.

This was the second concert in a series put on by Wesleyan’s student-run Experimental Music Group, the first of which I went to back in October.  That show featured acclaimed Berlin improvisers Madga Mayas and Tony Buck performing under the name SPILL, and it was incredible.  Using highly inventive extended techniques on their instruments—which are piano and percussion, respectively—Mayas and Buck created captivating and original music, great sprawling pieces at once violent and deeply spiritual.  It was a stunning night.

Having enjoyed SPILL so thoroughly, I went to .twiddlebuf with rather high expectations, and happily, I was not disappointed.  The two concerts were worlds apart from each other both in terms of sound and overall feeling, but they also shared a number of key characteristics that made each one enjoyable in its own distinct way.  .twiddlebuf, like SPILL, is a duo, comprised of electronic artist Sam Pluta and violinist Jim Altieri, and in both groups’ performances this configuration lent an intimate, conversational tone to the proceedings that facilitated extensive communication between the musicians and the audience.  The largely improvisational nature of the music was also critical to its success.  This helped to free up the musical conversation, creating an open, receptive environment for the musicians to share and interact with each other while we, the listeners, looked on, reflecting and just trying to keep up.

The greatest parallel between the two shows, however, was their manipulation of conventional instruments to explore unfamiliar sonic voices.  Mayas and Buck did this acoustically, placing objects and wires in and around their instruments and playing them in unusual ways, by scratching the piano’s strings, for instance, or rubbing large metal gears against the head of the snare drum.  .twiddlebuf took an electrical approach, using computer software and a fancy touch controller called a Manta to harness and distort the sound of Altieri’s violin.  Working effortlessly in tandem, the two of them blew apart the instrument’s traditional sound palette, evoking a myriad of textures and images from a passing train to a shakuhachi flute to the splotchy, moist work of modern electronic producer Balam Acab.  John Cage’s Rozart Mix (1965) was also fresh on my mind from the Alvin Lucier Celebration, and these choppy exchanges recalled that piece vividly for me as well.

Unlike the SPILL concert, which put me into something of a meditative reverie, I left .twiddlebuf feeling energized and invigorated.  I wasn’t very affected in an emotional sense, but in retrospect I don’t think that was the point.  It’s not that Pluta and Altieri’s music is frivolous, or that they don’t their craft seriously as other artists, say Mayas and Buck, do; it’s just different.  As their strange and playful name implies, .twiddlebuf is about experimentation its own sake, and also, arguably, for sound’s sake.  And that’s okay.  We need art with meaning, art that probes our lives and emotions and shows us what we cannot see, but we also need art that knows itself, that explores its own limits and potential and in doing so helps keep progress and innovation alive.

In light of these remarkable first two shows, I look forward to whatever the Experimental Music Group offers next.  My only criticism so far is that they’re too quiet about themselves; aside from day-of posts on Wesleying and a smattering of last-minute signs around campus, there was precious little publicity for either of the amazing and totally FREE little gems they’ve put on.  (Hence the empty parking lot at Russell House.)  But fear not—I recently discovered their group Facebook page, which you can like to hear about upcoming concerts in the series.  Keep an ear out.

To learn more about any of these artists, visit their websites:

Sam Pluta: http://www.sampluta.com/

Jim Altieri: http://tweeg.net/

Magda Mayas: http://magdamayas.jimdo.com/

Tony Buck: http://www.discogs.com/artist/Tony+Buck

Jack Chelgren ’15 reflects on “Alvin Lucier: A Celebration”

Jack Chelgren ’15 considers the performances of “Alvin Lucier: A Celebration.” “Alvin Lucier (and His Artist Friends)” is on display in the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery through December 11. The gallery is open Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 4pm; noon to 8pm on Fridays. Admission is free.

Sitting in Crowell Concert Hall on November 5, listening to the Wesleyan Orchestra performing Alvin Lucier’s Exploration of the House (2005), I found myself wracking my brain for ways to describe what I was hearing.  A number of adjectives came to mind—“cavernous,” “meditative,” even “primordial”—as well as other, more evolved images: The sound of singing wine glasses, a flickering of light on the surface of water.  Yet while these depictions evoked different aspects of the music, none of them truly struck its essence, which was a little ironic, given that Lucier’s pieces draw their strange, otherworldly qualities from everyday spaces and phenomena.  Like his most famous work,  I Am Sitting in a Room (1969), Exploration of the House is created by recording and rerecording sound until nothing but feedback and the resonant frequencies of the space remain.  But unlike Room, which takes the composer’s own speech as its medium, the latter directs an orchestra to perform passages from Beethoven’s Consecration of the House (1822), which are then put through the same distorting process, transforming stately Sturm und Drang into glowing sonic soup.  And while the traditionalist might cringe at the dismantling of a respected masterwork into uncontrolled, alien noise, sitting in Crowell with those waves of turbulent sound shimmering all around me, I could not help wondering if I had ever heard anything like it.  I was astounded by the simple clarity of Lucier’s artistic vision: he had taken a classic, a fixture of Western art music, and made it utterly his own, fashioning the original and organic out of the familiar.  This, indeed, is why Lucier’s music is so challenging to describe, and why, on a certain level, it seems so natural: he shows us what we already know, but in a different light.

In all, the Alvin Lucier Celebration was a spectacular tribute to the life and work of a man who for more than half a century has done as much as anyone in shaping the progress of experimental music.  It was also a testament to the ongoing vitality of this tradition, both in the world at large and at Wesleyan in particular.  “It’s impossible to overstate his influence,” said Dr. Paula Matthusen, when I spoke with her several weeks ago about the Celebration and its significance to the arts at Wesleyan.  Matthusen, who this year took over for Lucier teaching the famous Introduction to Experimental Music, cites Lucier as a major influence on her own work.  “It’s about these very simple processes revealing something magical,”  she told me, reflecting on his music.  “There’s something very poetic about it.”  In 2006 and again in 2008, Matthusen put on a sound installation called Filling Vessels inspired by Lucier’s 1997 piece Empty Vessels, which, like much of his oeuvre, is based on the exploration of spatial acoustics.  Subsequently, just a few days after my conversation with Dr. Matthusen, I had the opportunity to speak with Andrea Miller-Keller, guest curator of the exhibition Alvin Lucier (and His Artist Friends) in the Zilkha Gallery (on display through December 11), who called the Celebration a “major event in contemporary music at Wesleyan.”  Both she and Dr. Matthusen noted that while the Celebration was first and foremost a retrospective on Lucier’s life and achievements, it was also promising as a springboard for the ideas of younger musicians, students and alumni both.  “I’m hoping it’ll be a big shot in the arm, like an intensive learning experience [for everyone involved],” Miller-Keller enthused.  Ultimately, it wound up being just that.  A considerable amount of new music dedicated to Lucier was débuted throughout the weekend, ranging from tributes by genre luminaries Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, Christian Wolff, Neely Bruce, and Pauline Oliveros (all of whom were present for the performances) to a flash mob rendition of Lucier’s 1968 piece Chambers by the students of this year’s MUSC 109.

The Celebration’s greatest moments, naturally, came during its four main concerts.  Each of these abounded with fantastic performances, but a handful stood out as particularly memorable.  The gloriously simple Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra (1988), which opened the Solos concert, was such a piece.  Scored for solo amplified triangle, it was performed by Brian Johnson, for whom it was originally written—and it was spellbinding.  Johnson’s incessant, carefully-amplified beating grew into a thick collage of sound, filling the hall with layer after layer of overtones running from the unpitched, metallic low end to the delicate melody of resonant tones that emerged as the music progressed.  Another highlight was the opener of the Ensembles concert, Music for Gamelan Instruments, Microphones, Amplifiers and Loudspeakers (1994).  A number of works performed last weekend were written to explore what Lucier called in the program notes his “fascination with the idea that pitch can create rhythm,” which occurs through the interaction of sound waves tuned at close intervals.  In these pieces, Lucier reinvents harmonic dissonance as a metrical device, harnessing it to open up previously ignored realms of sonic possibility.  Performed by the Wesleyan Gamelan Ensemble, this was the most compelling of any of these explorations, a juxtaposition of the feedback created by holding bonang gongs over microphones with the normal intonations of gendér metallophones.  “Since it is virtually impossible that a strand of feedback will match exactly on any fixed-pitch instrument,” Lucier explains in the program, “audible beats [will] occur.”  The combination of the impressively regulated feedback and the soft chords emanating from the gendérs gave rise to a splendidly pulsating soundscape, hollow yet solid, lustrous yet nocturnal.  Finally, while the entire third concert, a recreation of Lucier’s first performance at Wesleyan, was superb—at numerous points during the show, people literally got out of their seats and walked around to get a better look at the performance—I was most affected by John David Fullerman, John Pemberton, and Douglas Simon’s collaborative tape work Cariddwen (1968).  Like the forgotten evil twin of Steve Reich’s classic Come Out (1966), Cariddwen takes a short, sibilant passage from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and chops it up, stretching, jumbling, and overlaying the words into a mesmerizing cascade of speech and noise.

In addition to Dr. Matthusen and Ms. Miller-Keller, I had the privilege of doing a short interview with Lucier himself a week or so before the Celebration began.  I asked him some questions about his music, the event, and the arts at Wesleyan, and then turned to the perennial query that faces every creator of experimental art: How should we appreciate your work?  Lucier answered unhesitatingly.  “There’s something I used to tell my MUSC 109 [Intro to Experimental Music] class,” he told me.  “‘I’m not really interested in your opinions.  I’m interested in your perceptions.’”  He laughed, musing that that sounded a little harsher than he meant it.  “Just listen carefully,” he revised.  But appreciation did not seem to be an issue for the concertgoers I encountered last weekend; quite contrarily, the entire event was characterized by a tone of enormous regard for both the man and his music.  Exploration of the House was the final piece in the Ensembles concert on Saturday night, and after it had finished, Lucier made his way from the audience up to the stage.  As he mounted the steps, shook hands with the conductor and concertmaster, and waved to the crowd, the entire hall got to its feet, ending the night movingly with cheers and a standing ovation.  It was a fitting climax for the evening, and for the Celebration as a whole, for three days dedicated to honoring a man whose influence has changed music at Wesleyan forever and will continue to do so for many years to come.

Joshua Roman discusses upcoming concert with Jack Chelgren ’15 (Nov. 18)

Jack Chelgren ’15 interviews cellist Joshua Roman to discuss his upcoming performance at Crowell Concert Hall on Friday, November 18.

Joshua Roman (Photo by Jeremy Sawatzky)

This Friday night at Crowell, wunderkind cellist Joshua Roman will play his début concert at Wesleyan, performing works by Debussy, Brahms, Astor Piazzolla, and contemporary composer Dan Visconti.  Lauded by critics as “a musician of imagination and expressive breadth” and touted by Yo-Yo Ma as an “[exemplar] of the ideal 21st century musician,” Mr. Roman has quickly become one of the most important and celebrated young figures in classical music.  After winning a spot as principal cellist in the Seattle Symphony at the age of 22—the orchestra’s youngest principal in history—he went on to launch a successful career as a soloist while continuing to work in chamber and symphonic settings on the side.  In 2007, he became the artistic director of Town Hall Seattle’s chamber music series, TownMusic, and in 2009, he participated in the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, where he was the only artist featured as a soloist during its premiere at Carnegie Hall.  Yet Roman isn’t one to keep music confined to the concert hall, but has been extremely active in working to make music accessible to an immense variety of people, from Chinese President Hu to victims of HIV/AIDS in Uganda.  Just this past year, he was named a TED Fellow in recognition of his unprecedented achievements and his contributions to the ongoing vitality of the art form.

I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Roman over the phone this week, and peppered him with questions about a multitude of topics, ranging from the experience of being the youngest performer in the Seattle Symphony to his views on making distinctions between musical genres.  I came away with an impression that corresponds exactly to Yo-Yo Ma’s assessment of Roman as a musician who is “deeply grounded in a classical tradition,” but also “a fearless explorer of our world.”  In Roman, I learned, there lies a singular balance between a progressivist and a purist; he’s the kind of artist who’s interested in new ideas and forms but still retains a deep regard for the foundations of his tradition.  Which isn’t so strange, for as he sees it, the two are not so different.  “It doesn’t feel like a stretch,” he told me, when I asked him about the challenges of working in both current and more archaic idioms.  Indeed, Roman isn’t so much concerned with genre—or anything, really—as with the unique character of a work itself.  “There has to be something I connect to,” he explained.  “It comes down to certain qualities: A balance of emotion, content, and message; interesting structure, and creativity in form,” all of which are features that piece from any era or background might have.  “We love to categorize,” he went on, but noted how most categorizations of music are based on rudimentary aspects like characteristic beats or instrumentations.  Instead of this, Roman suggests, we might try categorizing music based on its emotional message, which often speaks to the essence of a piece better than any particular musical element.  “There might be more differences between Bach and Stravinsky than between Debussy and Miles Davis,” he concluded.

It is this same ethos—one that favors grouping works by their emotional timbre instead of by accepted genre distinctions—that Roman adopted when designing the program for Friday night’s concert.  Taking Dan Visconti’s Americana as his starting point, he sought out works of a highly nationalistic character to accompany it, for Visconti’s piece, as its title suggests, is an exploration of American style and influence.  He chose these pieces for their similarities to Americana; by associating the piece with such familiar masterworks, Roman hopes to demonstrate Visconti’s deep comprehension of classical form, his talent for crafting musical narratives.  Accompanied by pianist Andrius Zlabys, Roman will perform cello sonatas by Debussy and Brahms, Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango, and the middle three movements of Americana.  This is not a night to miss.

Click here to watch Roman collaborating with DJ Spooky on a cover of Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place.”  The performance was realized as a part of the Voice Project, a benefit for women war victims in Northern Uganda.